Just a Day in an American High School…

By Neva Knott

Third Day of This School Year

Three classes today, block schedule, each is 75 minutes long. The first begins at 8:15. Traffic is bad, coffee line is bad, I get into my classroom at 8:10. Unusual for me–I like to arrive early, play some music, get my head in the game. But, my last job was teaching at a community college, and in that type of school, teachers arrive to the room with the students, so it was sort of familiar, too. I had my materials ready, having taught the same lesson to the first three of my six classes yesterday. The only glitch was logging on to the computer so that I could access the seating chart, take attendance, and play the videos that went with the lesson.

Tenth grade Biology…

The first unit is on how the brain works so that you can learn, but it’s also about how to take Cornell Notes, and how to do a close read and mark the text when reading for information. These are Sophomores, so most of them know, or should know, these study skills. But, it’s the beginning of the year, so we review.

B-Block Day, First Class

This class is sleepy. Compliant, sweet, good natured, but sleepy. It’s a small class–17 students–which can be good in terms of behavior, but also awkward when they are all quiet and sleepy and not so in to what we call the flipped classroom.

As I am turning on the computer and hoping it works, a boy comes in, introduces himself, shakes my hand. He was absent the first day. Nice way to introduce himself.

The bell rings, the computer loads, I take attendance, and we begin. I hand out the reading packet, write examples on the board of how to go through it and mark for key words, main ideas, and vocabulary. We look at the questions they’ll need to answer after reading, and I turn them loose to read. Four pages, and I give them 10 minutes. I know most students will finish, I know some won’t even start, and I know that some will work earnestly but will struggle. Ten minutes is enough time to read four pages straight through, but probably not enough to do the marking… but here’s the point… give them more time, and they won’t do anything until I tell them they have a minute left.

They work, I circulate the room and ask people individually if they understand, coach those not yet started so that they can begin.

And then there’s that kid. He’s been in a few of my classrooms in the 20 years I’ve taught. He’s always male. He always comes with some designation, in this case his online profile says he’s in the Indian Education Program. He sits, all day every day, in every class, and does nothing. He is openly, albeit quietly, defiant. He knows exactly where the get-sent-out-for-disciplinary-issues line is, and keeps one toe just over it enough to get whatever he is trying to get, and the rest of himself behind the line. Tuesday, our first day of class, he scrapped all the paint off the table. When I asked him to quit, his response was that the people who painted the table were so lazy they painted over tape. While I was instructing today, he was playing with one of those mini-skate-board decks that seems to fascinate 10th grade boys. Today, all he’s done is get out his shiny, new highliter pens, and is stacking them. Not reading, not marking the text, not giving a shit, just trying to rankle me. But he won’t. I give him two choices: 1. explain to me how you need my help to get started; 2. get started. I keep walking around, and when I come back by, he’s still stacking his pens. I restate my question/directions. At this point, I have taken his stack of markers as, and he says, “I need my markers.” I say, to get busy? He repeats himself. I give him the markers, and tell him that if I find him off task again, I will call the Dean. He is, and I do.

The Dean comes down, I motion for the student to quietly join us in the hallway, and I explain to her in all that educator kind of language that I am getting her involved because we are still setting expectations, and that I would like her support in emphasizing to him that, in my classes, we are–as the school saying goes–On Time, On Task, On a Mission, and that he seems to think working is an option. I also explain to her that he has been argumentative and defiant. She talks to him, he comes back, tells his table mate his woeful story, and continues to do nothing. Now he knows where I stand, and I know what I’m dealing with.

I fucking hate this shit. This is why I don’t teach full time anymore. The other choice I have is to ignore kids like him, which is what most teachers do. But, I can’t. I can’t because there is no good reason to…and, because kids like him want attention. The more they are ignored, the more they act out. So, on some level, he knows I care and that I am going to push him to succeed. But, that doesn’t lessen the bullshit factor of the situation.

Back to everyone else… they worked, diligently. I had to remind one kid no food in class, but I’m sure he remembered the rule because he was hiding his Reese’s PB cup… at least he didn’t leave his trash, hope that wasn’t his only breakfast. We got through the packet–all four pages and the questions–and it took about an hour. We had 15 minutes left, and the computer was working, so I showed them the youtube video we’ll work with next class session.

Ok, I thought, OK… we did it. I’m going to have to work to bring the energy level up in this class and to get them interacting in a learner-to-learner way. But not bad.

B-Block Day, Second Class

Big classes… 29 students. I have seats for 24. Let me tell you, teenagers don’t like to be all squished up, just sayin. Anyway, in they come. On the first day the internet dropped so I couldn’t put them in a seating chart, so that’s where we start today.

Did I mention there are a lot of them? So, I have them all stand along the side-lines, and start calling out names and pointing to seats, reminding them to “correct me gently” if I mis-pronounce a name. I get about a row and a half in, and I realize the disciplinary VP is standing in the doorway, watching. I had to call her to deal with a student yesterday, so I assume she is checking up on me–they do that. She’s smiling, so that’s good, but her time is valuable, so I float over and ask if she needs me “right now,” needs a kid, or needs to talk to me in a minute. She says in a minute is fine. I seat a couple more kids, and then she says, “maybe right now.”

Let me back up a minute–this is the second day I’ve had this class. The first day, it was plain to everyone that they we would do the seating chart today…yet, somehow, the other adult in the room then–the EA for the kids in special ed–didn’t bother to ask that I group together all of the students she works with, nor did she tell me who they are. So…as I started class today, she asked if I could group them. I said, with 20 students standing on the sidelines, and trying to keep them settled and focused, “Sure, but not right now. If you can give me their names after class, I will take care of it for Tuesday when we have class again.” Hmmm… so, back to the disciplinary VP… she says, “___________ needs you to group all of her students together.”

What the fuck? The EA left to tattle on me! Not cool AT ALL. I explained what I’d told the EA to the VP and assured her it would be done, but that I couldn’t do it right now. I paused, looked out at the sea of unseated kids, kids for whom I don’t really have seats, looked back at her and smiled with that smile that says, see what I mean.

Different lesson for this group: set up Cornell Notes, watch a video called The Learning Brain, take notes as review of how to take notes, do a variety of activities–pair share, whole-group share, me go back over stuff–to make sure they got it.

Sure, I had to give some behavioral reminders, like put your FUCKING CELL PHONE AWAY (that’s what I wanted to say, but of course I used teacher-speak language), and where’s your note paper? You’ll need to borrow a pencil from a neighbor, then… No, you can’t go to the bathroom while I’m giving directions, sort of stuff.

But, they got right to work. They worked, they didn’t just go through the motions–they actually worked to learn. Ok, most of them did. Even so, some kids had attitude. Who knows? They are teenagers.

Then it was time to get up and walk around the room and talk to two people you don’t know… it’s called building classroom community, it’s called think-pair-share, it’s called we just watched a video on how sitting too long decreases learning and we’re an hour in and y’all are getting twitchy.

Did I mention the video is only seven minutes long? Gone are the days of a seven minute video/note-taking taking seven minutes. There is some good to that… we use a variety of strategies so that students can experience the information multiple ways, which is what brain research says is most effective. But a lot of that time is eaten up with stuff that would have never been allowed when I was in 10th grade: coming unprepared; talking back to the teacher about which seat you’re assigned; not listening to directions and five people having to be retold what we’re doing, the VP popping in because the EA tattled…

So they are walking around for a minute or two… and one kid pulls out his cell phone and is setting up to take a selfie or a picture of his friend. So, I go over and call the office, ask that someone come down to confiscate the phone…

Since there are so many of them and they are up walking around, no one saw me call. I get them back in their seats and say, “let’s move on,” just as the hall monitor opens the door. Without missing a beat, I make eye contact with him, say, “hi, will you please take his phone?” while pointing at the kid. Dicey move on my part. I can tell this particular kid wants peer attention. I can tell he is not going to be openly defiant in front of 28 other students. The hall monitor takes him out, sets him right. I get the class on track for the next step of the lesson. As I circulate the room, I quietly tell him, “No phones. It’s a non-negotiable rule. Don’t have it out again.” What do you think he said back? “But we weren’t doing anything!” And kept arguing.

Somewhere in the mix of all that, the EA whispered to me that she told the Dean that the special ed teacher hadn’t contacted me… I think her gist was that she was trying to get the other teacher in trouble, not me. But what the fuck, anyway… she’s the one who dropped the ball.

B-Block Day, Third Class

Here it comes. The first day with this group, I spent most of my time being interrupted, and then reminding them of behavior guidelines and rules. The came with their A-game, for sure, the disrupt-the-teacher-so-we-don’t-have-to-do-any-work game. A sure sign they are low-skilled, and a sure sign they have not been made to take responsibility for their behavior in past classes. These are the kids that, in lower grades, were the one or two in the class who, because they were behind, found ways to eek out of doing work. Sophomore year, because of how electives and advanced classes work in mapping out the master schedule for a school, they all seem to land in one class, and that’s bad, because it’s a whole lotta wear-the-teacher-down behavior all day, every day for awhile. It can go several ways: they finally give in and let me help them; a bunch of them drop the class and then I am in the hot seat; they keep disrupting and I start writing referrals, which is about as effective as finding a missing sock… I have learned over the 20 years of my career that eliciting administrative help–ok, it is someone’s $80+ thousand-dollar-a-year job to be the disciplinary VP–gets me into more trouble than it gets the “bad” kid into.

So I stand outside the door, greet each one, and remind them to put their phones away. This establishes that they are entering MY territory and that I am alpha. When the bell rings, I shut the door, stand in front of the class and smile. Then I remind them that we’re going to work on classroom behavior today.

I start the lesson, and am bombarded with interruptions, kids blurting out either commentary meant to derail me, or just plain unnecessary crap. It takes almost 15 minutes to get started… you know, to watch the seven-minute video.

I start the video, and also stop it twice to go over what they should have in their notes. I then tell them I am going to let them finish taking notes without my prompting, though I will stop the video a couple of times to give them time to write stuff down–the woman in the video speaks very quickly…

I circulate the room, and guess what? Out of the 20 students, five are taking notes. One kids says, “no one has given me any paper yet,” even though it is written on the board, “bring supplies every day.” A couple of kids mumble and look down and say they don’t need help. A couple try to argue–WTF? A couple shrug their shoulders. One says he already knows how to do this, which makes NO sense, because…he isn’t doing it.

So we get through the video. Hardly anyone has notes. They begin, in random shout-at-the-teacher fashion to ask me about what was in the video, expecting me to tell them everything they should have written down. When I explain to them that I am not going to do that, because 1. the expectation is that they be on task; 2. the lesson is to practice note-taking… I get some real push-back. Then they want me to replay the video.

So we have another chat about classroom behavior. I point-blank, in a nice-ish way say, “Hey, if I would have seen people actually trying to take notes and actually paying attention, I might replay the video. But, since about two thirds of you all didn’t take any notes, even when I asked if you needed help getting started (multiple times, I might add, dear reader), and when I paused the video for you to catch up, and I saw people staring out the window, or with notebooks closed, or drawing on the desk, no, I am not going to tell you what to put in your notes and I am not going to replay the video.”

In this writing, I know I am forgetting some of the table-by-table stuff, the snitty little things said to me as I walked around, offering help… but anyway.

They had a lot to shout out about that…so I sat and waited until they quieted down. I wait…and while I am waiting, a kid walks by in the hall and one of my students shouts out to him, “what you doing, niggah?” The whole class goes silent and then looks at me. I say yep, we have to work on behavior in this class, for example language. One girl pipes in, “yeah, no profanity, especial the “N” word.” So now they are in my court and we are getting somewhere. If I had ignored the kid who had just made the ultimate faux pas in a mixed race classroom, I’d have lost them forever.

Finally, one kid blurted out, “Miss Knott, do you have patience?” I didn’t answer him. I didn’t answer, because in that moment, he didn’t want the answer–he wanted to make me look bad.

In that moment, also, the students who had done the work were getting that look that those students always get… the one of how the hell did I end up in class with these kids again?

So, I moved on in the lesson. Most of them realized by that time they weren’t going to get anywhere with the bad behavior, so they shut up, at least. What that looked like, 20 minutes before the end of class, was closed notebooks, pens/pencils put away, backpacks on tables, ready to hit the door at the bell.

The next step in the lesson was to have them share with the class from their notes–back to having students “touch” the information multiple times. I handed out note cards, told them to put the number 7 in the top right hand corner and then to write their name on the card. Wow…. over half the class had to have the directions repeated, more than once. Most of the cards weren’t set up as I said. Anyway… this is all information for me about these students.

So shuffled the cards and began calling on students to share from their notes. Those who had notes did a really nice job, quickly giving a fact. Those who had complained that I wouldn’t tell them what to write/replay the video just sat there, notebooks closed, pencils away. After a few share-outs, I said, “I find it quite odd that the people who wanted me to replay the video are the people with closed notebooks…” That changed nothing. So we kept going.

As I wrapped up class, I said, “You all did much better coming into the room and settling down today. But, we still need to work on on-task behavior, and not blurting out interruptingly and making snippy comments.” Somebody started to say some argumentative what-what, and I shut it down. I was done, and I know my facial expression said so, loud and clear. I said, response,  “No. I know the difference between what I need help looks like and I’m trying to “get” the teacher looks like, and most of what I’ve seen in here is trying to get the teacher.”

Some of this behavior is masking low skill level, which I can see already in their work. Some if it is learned helplessness. Some of it is just plain disrespectful bullshit.

Class ended. But I kept one girl behind. In the mix of all the crazy, she had not taken the seat I’d directed her to, hadn’t taken out her notebook, wasn’t doing the work… I talked to her at her table, trying to figure out why, but her table-mate interrupted and yelled, “she can’t speak English so you can’t make her do this.” Not helpful. Not respectful, to me, or that girl.

I walked her over to the counseling center to see if we could get her into a lower-level class. Her counselor told me this: “The Oregon Department of Education deemed that all ELD students (students who can maybe speak a little English) have to be in regular, grade-level classes.” But, no translator has been provided for her. No auxiliary materials have been provided for her. No one told me. The counselor’s first approach was to talk down to me and tell me to ask for help to find classroom teaching strategies to help her…she was really demeaning. I nipped that, saying, “I’ve been teaching in this district since 1995…I know the strategies. But, what she needs is help with translation. She didn’t even know what I meant when I was giving simple directions.” After a lengthy discussion, counselor-to-student in Spanish, and counselor-to-me in English, we determined that the girl’s cousin is in the class, and can help translate. I told the counselor that she seemed pretty lost, too, but that was countered with a gloss-over comment. I was given the name of the ELD teacher to contact.

Her first approach of help was to email the principal to see if there were many ELD students in the class so that it justified the use of a translator to “help the teacher.”

And then I returned to my classroom, pissed.

Pissed at the system that, in the 20 years I’ve been in it hasn’t found a way to help students who don’t speak English–and there are many. Pissed that behavior expectations are stated and not upheld–I’m not talking about uptight stuff, just basic classroom demeanor stuff. Pissed that a kid with a $300 cell phone thinks it’s my job to buy him paper. Pissed that 10th-graders think the expectation is too high when they are asked to take notes on a seven-minute video. Pissed that the ELD teacher phrased her email that I needed the help, not the student. Pissed that the EA called the VP on me…

And here’s the thing about having the VP called, and me having to call the Dean and then the Hall Monitor, and having to visit the counselor (which many teachers, especially in the situation of being a sub, wouldn’t have done)… all of that goes as little black-marks in the column that says, “we had to go to her classroom to take care of an issue again.” Fuck that.

I emailed the Special Ed teacher, noting that, after I had told the EA I would deal with the seating issue for the next class, the VP was called in. I wanted her to know, in my professionally worded email, that that was oh so the wrong move, and that I didn’t appreciate it. I think she got the message; her reply was effusive and an offer of lots of communication.

The Question and the Smile

So that kid who asked if I have patience… he has no idea. And, yes, I will answer his question on Tuesday when I start class and remind them again of behavior expectations in the classroom…and this is what I will say, “I have no patience for disruptive, rude behavior (and why should I?). I have infinite patience for kids who are trying.”

We’re supposed to teach behavior–it’s written everywhere in all the school-rule stuff. We’re supposed to know the kids and what they need in terms of educations. It was a hard fucking day, one that reminded me why I don’t want to do this full-time. But, guess what? That girl, the one who doesn’t speak enough English to know which seat I’m directing her to, she smiled at me when we finished our conversation with the counselor. And that is the same in any language.




One thought on “Just a Day in an American High School…

  1. OMG, and I’ve idly thought of becoming a teacher, and my writing group asks if I’m a teacher. And I vehemently answer, “No, I’m a moderator and anytime you want to chose another one, you can be my guest.” (Separately, the history of the Oregon Territory and Pacific U has been published. I promised to let you know because you were interested the wolf attacks in 1840s Oregon that led to the formation of their first government.)


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